The implications of uncertainty about personhood

Many times the different parts of my life conflict with each other, but sometimes they come together in interesting ways. Susan Haack’s recent post on the article “The Fetus, the “Potential Child,” and the Ethical Obligations of Obstetricians” from the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology contained a quote that connected with a reference to an article by Christopher Tollefson by one of my students in a recent paper. The authors of the Obstetrics and Gynecology article stated that the issue of whether a fetus has full moral status is “irresolvably disputable” and from that drew the conclusion that the fetus has no independent moral status and subsequently reached the conclusion that abortion is permissible. Tollefson, however, has argued that an inability to decide whether a human being at a certain point in development has full moral status should actually lead to the opposite conclusion.

In his article “Embryos, Individuals, and Persons: An Argument Against Embryo Creation and Research” in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2001, Tollefson argued that in order to conclude that destructive research on human embryos is permissible it would be necessary to establish conclusively that the human embryo is not a person. His argument is that if it is uncertain whether an entity is a person or not it would be wrong to intentionally kill it. Therefore, it is wrong to conclude that it is permissible to do destructive research on early human embryos because we don’t know or can’t know whether those embryos have full moral status. The uncertainty about their moral status means that we should avoid the possibility of killing a person if those embryos would happen to be persons. That same idea can be applied to the “irresolvably disputable” issue of whether a fetus has full moral status. If the issue is unresolved then there exists the possibility that a fetus is a person with full moral status and we should not kill a fetus if that possibility exists.

An example that would be readily understandable to many of my rural Midwestern patients and neighbors can illustrate this point. Assume you are a deer hunter in the woods of rural Indiana and you see something move in the underbrush. You are not sure whether it is a person or a deer. It would be morally wrong to shoot at whatever was moving without determining with certainty that it was not a person. In the same way doing embryo destructive research or an abortion is wrong unless you are able to determine with certainty that what is being killed is not a person. Uncertainty about the personhood of the embryo or fetus means that it would be morally irresponsible to kill it.

It would be sad to think that the typical deer hunter has more moral responsibility than a medical researcher or physician.

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Susan Haack

Great example! Thanks for clarifying what I only alluded to.